Photo by Adobe Stock/Erik Reis
My first “garden plant” was a pitiful potted basil plant I bought in college. I brought it home, watered it, and waited for it to grow. I imagined a large, bushy houseplant that would provide an abundance of leaves I would use for the gourmet meals I’d cook as soon as I moved on from my diet of daily quesadillas. Admittedly, I knew nothing about herbs, not even the difference between annuals and perennials. More specifically, I didn’t know that, unless picked, the annual basil would naturally flower and seed. Clearly, my goals were misaligned.
Fast forward a few years: My family moved into a house with a yard, and I began planning an herb garden. I imagined transforming the front lawn into an herbal apothecary for all of my culinary and medicinal aspirations. Those ambitions played out in one form or another, but not how I planned. I successfully grew culinary herbs, snipped them fresh, and dried them for later, but I am not an herbalist. I found my work with herbs and spices didn’t take form as tinctures, but as food.
Over the years, I’ve been inspired by the idea that our everyday food can also be our medicine. As the gardens grew bigger, my connection with real food became stronger, as did my relationship with flavor, and tasty morsels needed preservation. Enter fermentation. I want to share my journey into this captivating craft, specifically with medicinal herbs, as well as how you can become a practicing fermenter.
My journey into fermenting herbs began on a whim. After fermenting all the vegetables from the garden, I was exasperated by the high cost of pine nuts and Parmesan cheese for all the pesto I’d be making. On a whim, I decided to ferment it.
I fermented whole leaves and a “pesto” starter, which I could add pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan to as needed. Since I had always been disappointed in the flavor of dried basil and other delicate leaf herbs, my mind was blown.
When herbs are dried, the volatile flavor compounds dissipate easily. With fermentation, you lock in those compounds. Using fermented basil leaves in cooking is almost like using fresh basil because, in a sense, you are keeping the food alive. Since fermentation frees many of the nutrients in our food and makes them more available for our bodies, I began to think of the possibilities when fermenting with plants that heal. This opened up a whole new path of experimentation for culinary and health benefits, thus blurring the line between food and medicine. The resulting botanical mixtures bring health and flavor into our lives through delicious fermented beverages, condiments, and herbal pastes.
Whether for culinary or medicinal purposes, when you ferment fresh herbs you’re increasing the magic they have to offer. Beyond preserving the flavor, you’re also gaining the benefits of consuming fresh herbs, and in a sense, keeping the herb alive through the live probiotic microbes that are now on board. You might be thinking that some herbs and spices can only be found dry. By the same token, you can think of fermenting as a wonderful way to wake up these dried compounds. Breathe microbial life and active enzymes back into them, and spread the goodness they offer throughout the ferment.
Photo by Getty Images/bbtomas
Pros of the Pickling Process
The probiotics are an important part of fermented foods and get most of the attention, but there is much more that ferments have to offer. As the microbes break down the foods (in this case, the herbs), they become more bioavailable. In other words, all the goodness is easier for your body to absorb. What this means is that the microbes are consuming the starches that we can’t digest, converting them to lactic acid (that pickle-like flavor), but the fiber and inulin (the prebiotics) are not broken down, making the combination ideal for long-term digestive health.
But that’s not all fermented foods have to offer. At the same time, the fermentation process increases the vitamins and antioxidants of the raw ingredients, some of which are already present, such as vitamin C. Others, such as vitamin B12 or K2, form in the process. As vegetables ferment, the process also creates a host of digestive enzymes. This means that these foods help your body digest not only said ferment, but anything else you’re eating along with it. This powerful combination of digestive enzymes, probiotics, prebiotics, increased vitamins, and high bioavailability works to boost your immune system. Fermentation is how you can take the power of functional herbs and spices and tailor them for your needs, while making something delicious that you want to eat.
For example, consider kimchi: This popular food showcases a combination of fermented garlic, ginger, and capsaicin (hot pepper), and it’s famously known for keeping colds and flu at bay. Perhaps most importantly, it tastes good, and that’s key to functional foods.
Ready, Set, Ferment!
If we’re going to be real here, do we really like eating stuff that doesn’t taste good? We can talk ourselves into it, but if it’s not mandatory, it’s usually not the first thing we grab. Yet we should be eating many not-so-tasty ingredients daily. A well-stocked larder full of delicious herbal pastes, rich condiments, and fermented salads will keep you grabbing for these functional food flavors without even thinking about it.
Create flavorful and healthful ferments using herbs from a variety of places: pots on a balcony or garden; spray-free patches of wild “weeds;” cuttings from farmers markets; or products from an apothecary. To get started with your own herb-based ferments, think about your favorite flavors. Start with herbs you know well and enjoy, and think about what you might find yourself using. For example, I love a fermented cilantro paste composed of cilantro, parsley, garlic, and a little dried oregano. After blending the ingredients together with some salt (about 1.5 to 2 percent by weight), I set them to ferment. I use this to flavor and add live probiotics to my food. A good rule of thumb is to taste your herbal creation raw as you’re making it. If it tastes good raw, chances are it’ll taste amazing fermented.
Get your creative juices flowing, and happy fermenting!
Preserve Your Health With a Fermentation Recipe
The ingredients in the “Fermented Fennel Chutney” all play an important role in the medicinal mixture. Fennel is known for digestive health and decreasing gas, while ginger is a warming herb that can settle an upset stomach. The combination of turmeric root and black pepper is an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. The piperine in black pepper also aids in increasing hydrochloric acid secretion. Dandelion root and leaf are amazing for liver and kidney health, and the root is also rich in inulin. The apple slices give the ferment a sweet balance, and they’re also rich in inulin.
Inulin is a soluble fiber that’s often called a prebiotic. While a probiotic is food containing live bacteria, a prebiotic is food for those bacteria that inhabit the walls of your gut. It’s easiest to think of prebiotics as food for your gut microbes — as they break this resistant starch down, your colon is nourished, which in turn contributes to your vitality.
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